The motion of a beating heart is one of the most iconic symbols of life, but in truth we still struggle to explain exactly how it works. Many of the actual cellular and extracellular processes are still hidden from us. That’s what set off Kevin Kit Parker and Janna Nawroth of Harvard University and the California Institute of Technology.
“I started looking for marine organisms that pump to survive,” said Parker. Because most organisms share common cellular architecture, a simple animal model could help elucidate the underlying mechanisms. “Then I saw a jellyfish.” Jellyfish, one of the simplest and oldest animals on Earth, swim through the ocean by pumping water through their bodies.
In order to understand how these creatures coordinate their motion, Parker collaborated with Nawroth to reverse engineer a jellyfish. The first step was detailed study of the jellyfish’s cellular and extracellular proteins. Biometrics and crystallography supplied this information, but that was only the first step. Once the idea was concrete, it was time to create an artificial model. To do so Parker and Nawroth created a sheet of specially cultured rat cardiac muscle cells and impregnated them into a silicone polymer form. The final creation, dubbed the Medusoid, was then put to the test. As electricity was introduced the cells began to beat in rhythm, successfully pumping the Medusoid across its enclosure. The pseudocreature worked.
The advanced techniques used by these two researchers represents the cutting edge in bioengineering. It is hoped that this kind of research will eventually lead to safe artificial organs.